The Heart of Picture Books

Guest post by Julie Hedlund

I’ve been thinking a great deal about “layers” in picture books lately, for three reasons. The first is because I am doing an entire presentation on the subject at the Picture Book Summit (more information below my bio) this October. The second is because for a couple of years, I got feedback from my agent and even editors we submitted to that some of my work was “slight,” or “one note,” or “didn’t resonate.” I set out to discover how to write picture books that have more depth. More importance. More heart.

For so few words, the best picture books are incredibly complex. When writing picture books, you need to bake in multiple layers to create the richness our readers deserve. Picture books are more than just a combination of structure, theme, and plot. More, even, than a character’s journey (all of which are other layers included in the best picture books).

But the layer that is perhaps the most important, and perhaps even more elusive to get right than “voice,” is “heart.”

My agent tells me all editors want picture books with heart. ALL picture books. Whether they are fiction or nonfiction, funny or serious, quiet or boisterous.

So, what IS the heart of a picture book?

To me, heart is the moment of connection for the reader. It’s when we see ourselves in the book. It’s the moment we cease being a spectator (reader) and become a participant. In short, heart is what makes us FEEL.

We don’t have to experience what the characters in the book are experiencing to “see” ourselves. But the book must touch an emotional truth for us. Heart in picture books is what enables children to learn and practice empathy. Heart is usually the layer that transforms the reader on some level. Heart makes them realize something about themselves that they weren’t aware of before, or to see something in a new way.

I think all great picture books have what I have termed the “heart moment.” It’s the precise when the book becomes more than just a book. It becomes a piece of your life. Now, picture books often (and should) have more than one heart moment. So two readers might experience the heart moment at different places in the book. However, if the reader doesn’t have a “heart moment,” the book falls “flat,” and probably won’t be read again.

The heart moment can come in the text, the illustrations, or (usually) a combination of both.

Let’s take a look at some superb heart moments in a few recent picture books.

In Bunnybear, by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Carmen Saldaña, Bear is “more” than a bear. He is also a bunny. Later, after being rejected by both bears and bunnies, he meets Grizzlybun, who is “more” than a bunny. The heart moment comes from the text when Bunny bear says to Grizzlybun: “You just look one way on the outside and feel another way on the inside. That’s okay.”

bunnybear

 Who, in this world, has not felt accepted for the way they really ARE versus the way they look? I’m guessing nobody, and here is another aspect of heart moments. Often, the heart is what makes a book universal. Obviously, I’ve never been a bear or a bunny or a combination of either. But certainly I’ve felt judged and not “seen” for who I really am.

In the concept book, Life, by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel, we learn that “Life begins small, and grows.” Undoubtedly, there will be difficult times. But then we are asked to, “Remember this: in every corner of the world, there is something to love.

life

What’s interesting about this heart moment is that not only is it a combination of art and text, but it’s the ONLY time domesticated animals appear in the book. It features both a dog and cat, making it more universal. It’s also the only time we see human-made structures. This is the precise point where the book gets personal.

goodnews

Now let’s look at one of my all-time favorite books, Good News Bad News, by Jeff Mack. This example

is a nice contrast because it’s a humorous book, and the heart moment (and ind

eed the entire story arc) is “told” in the illustrations.

Ms. Rabbit is eternally optimistic, and Mr. Rat is the opposite. He always sees the worst in a situation.

The heart moment comes when Ms. Rabbit (by the way, I have no idea if that is really their gender. It’s just always the way I’ve seen the characters), caves under Mr. Rat’s incessant claims that everything is bad news.

bunnyMs. Rabbit made it through a LOT in this book and kept her peppy attitude. But now, all is lost. Mr. Rat is going to have to make it right somehow. This is the first point in the book that Mr. Rat shows any emotion other than anger or irritation.

Make sure you can identify the heart moment(s) in your own manuscripts before submitting to agents or editors. The best way to learn is, of course, reading MANY picture books and looking for heart. The heart beats behind all great picture books.

Julie Hedlund Head Shot

Julie Hedlund is an award-winning picture book author, 21st century publishing expert, co-founder of the online conference Picture Book Summit, and founder of the 12 x 12 Picture Book Writing Challenge. Since 2012, 12 x 12 has encouraged thousands of picture book writers to get their stories out of their heads and onto the page. Julie is a frequent speaker at writing retreats and conferences. Her picture book credits include My Love For You is the Sun and A Troop is a Group of Monkeys.

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Julie will present at Picture Book Summit this October.  Picture Book Summit is a world-class online conference for picture book writers and illustrators. With keynotes and workshops from bestselling, award-winning authors and illustrators, plus other learning and networking opportunities for aspiring picture book authors around the globe, this is the premier conference writers strive to attend every year. This year we are excited to feature legend Tomie dePaola, Coretta Scott King award winner Carole Boston Weatherford, and NYT Bestselling author Adam Rex. You won’t want to miss this conference for children’s writers on Oct 7th, 2017. Get more details, including information on our Early Bird pricing, at www.picturebooksummit.com

31 comments

  1. So … picture books are like artichokes – with many layers around the heart. This is something I need to put more focus on in my own writing. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Julie, for this beautifully-written post with such clear evidence to support your theme. Perfect timing for me to check my latest ms against your criteria.

    Like

  3. I once had a “non-writer” friend who said (and she truly wasn’t being snarky), “How hard can writing picture books be? There’s mostly pictures, and not many words. They seem simple.” :0 I WISH I could have articulated my answer as well as you did in this post!

    Like

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